Benjamin Bruce is a young web designer living in Georgia, USA. He is one of the volunteer translators you can get in touch with through Freelang, and he is currently learning Nahuatl, which we thought would be an interesting theme for an interview.
Interview by Beaumont
Published October 23, 2012
Benjamin, to me, and probably to most people who are not familiar with Mexico, Nahuatl evokes the image of the ancient Aztecs! Is that a correct association?
Yes! Although the people who speak Nahuatl today are not called Aztecs, they are direct descendants of that tribe that established an empire in central Mexico. What many do not realize is that these people still exist and that Nahuatl is still widely spoken.
Can you tell us in where Nahuatl is spoken today, and how many speakers there are?
Nahuatl speakers are found throughout Mexico, but they are mostly concentrated in Guerrero, the area surrounding Mexico City, and the Huasteca region of Mexico north of Mexico City. My sources (Wikipedia) tell me there are about 1.45 million speakers of Nahuatl today.
Besides Spanish and Nahuatl, are there many other languages in Mexico?
Oh yes, Mexico is one of the most linguistically and culturally diverse countries in the world. The Mexican government recognises 67 other languages besides Nahuatl, and while many of them are related, there are several families represented. The region of Mexico I have visited most (the Huasteca) is home to not only Nahuatl speakers, but also speakers of Tenek, a Mayan language. One of my friends here in the U.S. speaks Otomi, which is yet another indigenous Mexican language.
Is there one form of Nahuatl, or several dialects?
There is actually a number of Nahuatl dialects. To speak of the Nahuatl language is kind of like talking about Chinese – it’s a convenient way to refer to the dialects, but in reality they vary widely. Classical Nahuatl is what they were speaking around the time of the Spanish conquest, and now there are a number of dialects spoken in different parts of Mexico. And despite their common ancestry, some of these are quite different from each other.
Is it considered an endangered language?
You could say that. It’s not in as precarious a position as many other Mexican indigenous languages, but there have been pressures on parents not to pass it on, and it is on the decline. However, as long as some children are still learning it, Nahuatl is guaranteed a future.
Are there any resources in Nahuatl, such as publications, newspapers, local radio or TV channels?
There’s actually not a whole lot. Nahuatl is primarily a spoken language, and most of the literature that exists is for religious, missionary purposes. Being a spoken language, however, there are certain government-owned radio stations that broadcast in Nahuatl and other native languages. Listening to these on the Internet has been a good way for me to practice listening comprehension.
How did you decide to learn Nahuatl?
I’ve always had a fascination with Mexico, and when I first visited the Huasteca and heard the language spoken, I was enthralled. I had done research on native languages in the United States, and knowing that most of those were either dead or dying, it was very refreshing to see the vitality of Native American languages in Mexico. I knew I would be back, so I thought “Why not learn Nahuatl?” Plus I like the “tl” sound – silly, I know, but I just love the way Nahuatl sounds; it’s very exotic.
As there are several dialects, did you just choose one?
Western Huasteca Nahuatl is what is spoken in the area I visit in Mexico, so that’s the dialect I chose. Now that I live in a place in the United States with many Nahuatl speakers who have immigrated, I’ve been exposed some to the Central Huasteca dialect, so my Nahuatl will probably become somewhat of a mix of those two. Even within a dialect, though, there are regional differences, so sometimes you just have to choose, and be able to recognise both possibilities!
Can you tell us about the particularities of this language?
Definitely. One peculiarity is that the language completely lacks infinitive verbs. For example, in order to say “I want to eat”, you would say Nijneki nitlakuas, literally “I want I will eat”. Another interesting aspect of the language is that it lacks certain contrastive words. Like Esperanto, there is no word for “bad”, only “not good” (ax kuali). But before you conclude that this must be a very positive language, neither is there a word for “easy”-one must say “not difficult” (ax owi)! And although verbs in Nahuatl are quite different from verbs in European languages, they are easy to form, and they are almost all regular, with one or two exceptions. Overall, the most difficult part of the language is the vocabulary, since it is completely unrelated to European languages. Unlike Spanish, Nahuatl is an agglutinative language, and its words can be very long.
What about the writing system-do people still understand the old pictograms, or do they only use the Roman alphabet now?
Well, the pictograms you’re referring to were never a full-fledged writing system-more of a mnemonic for people to look at when reciting things they had memorised. Those aren’t used any more, but Nahuatl does lend itself surprisingly well to the Roman alphabet, which the Spanish brought over with them from Europe. However, today few Nahuatl speakers write the language, even though they probably could if they wanted to.
“Chocolate” is probably the most famous loanword that was borrowed from Nahuatl. Do you know any others?
Yes! Of course Spanish has a lot of them, but there are some others that have made their way into English and beyond. “Tomato” comes to mind, as well as “coyote”. “Tamale”, “guacamole”, “chili”, “ocelot”… mainly foods and other things that the Europeans didn’t have a word for.
How do you, personally, go about the language learning process; what is your method? Do you take lessons with a teacher?
I rarely take formal language lessons, but I do rely heavily on talking with native speakers. I generally start by learning the phonetic system of a language, and its writing system (if applicable). I put a lot of emphasis on achieving correct and near-native pronunciation, because often when people hear you pronounce their language without a foreign accent, they attribute greater fluency to you than you really possess, and that is valuable early on. I like to learn grammar from books, but I don’t postpone speaking. Personally, I believe the sooner you start speaking a language, the better, even if you can’t say much yet. Just jump in there, and start talking! Language learning really is a high for me-the more my ability to use the language increases, the more excited I get, and the motivation just keeps me going.
Are there some free resources available on the Internet to learn Nahuatl?
There’s not a whole lot out there for modern Nahuatl, although there are several resources for classical. The radio stations I mentioned are good for practice, as well as Bible.is, which has the New Testament in both text and audio for several Nahuatl dialects. The site Mexica (mexica.ohui.net, in Spanish) explains modern Nahuatl grammar, although it doesn’t specify what dialect it is. If you can’t find anything for your target dialect, this would be a good starting point.
How would you describe your level now, and what are you able to achieve?
At this time I am on a mission to become conversational in Nahuatl, and I am making good progress. I am able to hold conversations completely in the language, though I do have to ask about words rather often. My struggle is to keep from switching to Spanish, which I speak much more comfortably. I’m going back to the Huasteca for a week in November 2012, so I am working to be as proficient as possible by that time.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to take up Nahuatl?
OK, I’m going to go from the perspective of someone wanting to learn modern Nahuatl, since that’s what I’m doing. First of all, pick a dialect. If you live in Mexico or the United States, find some native speakers, figure out which dialect they speak, and go from there. You can switch dialects if need be down the road, but it’s good to stick to one that will be most useful to you. Secondly, find resources. You’ll have to dig – the two-book course I have for Huasteca Nahuatl is out of print, and I was fortunate that SIL had some copies sitting around in their warehouse. SIL does have some resources for other dialects on their website, although some of these are more linguist-oriented. Third, speak. Nahuatl is a spoken language, so learning to read it, while admirable, won’t get you very far. Make friends! Find Nahuatl speakers to practice with! In my experience, they are very accommodating, and are often very surprised to find that you’re interested in their language. You’re going to need to combine your speaking with lots of study, too. Keep a wordlist as you learn new words – few good dictionaries exist for the modern dialects. Learn the grammar from a written resource. Before I got my Nahuatl course books, I tried asking native speakers about grammatical questions, and (understandably) they weren’t very helpful. You can learn a lot by talking and listening, but grammar from a book goes a long way. And if anyone does want to learn Nahuatl, I would love to hear from them, and answer any questions about it.
Apart from Nahuatl, can you speak other languages?
Yes, English is my first language, and Spanish my second. I also speak Esperanto, and I’ve dabbled in various other languages, though I can’t claim fluency in them. I can read and write Ancient Greek, and that’s actually the language I most often get translation requests for on Freelang.
How and where did you learn Ancient Greek?
I actually started studying it as a small child, and just never stopped. The main reason I started learning it was so that I could read the New Testament in Greek, but since then my interests have expanded to other Greek literature, music, and even the modern language and culture. It’s a beautiful and very expressive language, and one of my favourites.
Is learning Esperanto as easy as they say it is?
I would say so, especially if you already speak one of the major European languages. It’s also helpful when learning one of those major languages – when I was learning French, I was surprised to find that between Spanish and Esperanto, I already knew a lot of vocabulary! Right now I mostly just speak it at the local Esperanto club meetings, but I have also used it while travelling abroad in Europe. There is a lot of Esperanto stuff online too.
Do you plan to learn any other new languages?
Yes, definitely! I’m a glossophile, I guess you could say – I have a whole list of languages I’d like to learn. Next on the list is Korean. Besides Spanish and Nahuatl, there is a large Korean community where I live, so I want to take advantage of the immersion possibilities right here at home.
As a web designer yourself, what is your point of view concerning Freelang? And besides Freelang, do you have any favorite websites you wish to share with us?
I like Freelang. Its graphic design isn’t particularly eye-catching, but the content and structure are great. One of my first introductions to Nahuatl, in fact, was the Freelang Nahuatl dictionary! I mostly use the site as one of the volunteer translators, and I have enjoyed participating in that way. Omniglot.com is one of my favourite sites, and I also follow Benny the Irish Polyglot, though I must warn that he uses bad language from time to time. And of course, never underestimate Wikipedia. I find myself browsing pages on different languages sometimes, just to see if I think it would be fun to learn them someday.
Thank you very much, Benjamin! 🙂 If you would like to follow Benjamin’s progress in his mission to achieve a conversational level in Nahuatl, as well as his other endeavours in life, check out his blog Ziphen Central.
Feel free to share your comments on this interview.